Guemes Island Ferry Facts Coalition:

A Review Of The Proposed Changes To The Ferry Committee Charter

A Review of the Proposed Changes
to the Guemes Island Ferry Committee Charter

The Ferry Committee (FC) was constituted in1980 at the specific request of the Skagit Board of County Commissioners (BOCC).  It is instructive to understand the formation and role of the FC as one contemplates major changes to its charter proposed by the current Ferry Committee.  The following history is from the first Burke Study of the Guemes Island Ferry published October 7, 2002 which was commissioned by Skagit County and particularly encouraged by then County Commissioner Don Munks.

“The Guemes Island Ferry Committee, a five-member citizens committee, was organized in 1980 as a sounding board and consensus-building group of Guemes Island citizens.  The impetus for the Committee’s creation was the County’s 1979 purchase of the 22-car M/V Guemes, to replace the 9-11car M/V Almar.  This new vessel resulted in changes in the delivery of Ferry service and the cost for these services: in June 1981 the Skagit County Public Works Director projected a 10.4% increase above the 1980 cost for labor and fuel, and recommended an increase of approximately 30% in fares to cover these increases.  This situation created controversy and dissention on the island, and as a result, the county Commissioners requested the formation of an independent Ferry Committee to represent the various parts of the Island and to make recommendations to the Commission on Ferry policies and practices.”

This Burke study further states, “Since its inception, the Guemes Island Ferry Committee has continued to serve as a means of interaction between local Guemes residents and the Skagit County government.”

For years, the Committee functioned on an as-needed basis with elections based on resignation of a member of the Committee.  The elections were by hand-vote at the Community Hall.  The Burke Study recommended that the Ferry Committee needed to become formally constituted under a charter and that it should be formally recognized by the County:

“The County Commissioners should adopt a Resolution chartering the (Ferry Advisory Committee) FAC, and specifying its purpose, authority and operating procedures, including procedures for membership and reporting to the Commission.  By-laws should be created that define the Committee’s operating structure, including how members are elected and with what frequency.  Skagit Transit’s Citizen Advisory Committee provides a model for defining the roles, responsibilities and procedures for a citizen advisory committee.”

Commissioner Munks followed up on this particular recommendation directing the FC to create an electoral process with verifiable paper ballots that represented the residents of Guemes Island.  The FC followed through on the Burke and Munks recommendations, created a charter, routinized meetings and formalized elections.  The County Commissioners never adopted a “Resolution chartering the FAC. . .”.   A reason for this failure to formally recognize the Ferry Committee was never given.  The Ferry Committee’s existing charter was last amended in 2010.  It is now proposed to be changed substantially by the current FC.

Both the current charter and the new charter can be found on LineTime under Island Groups on the Guemes Island Ferry Committee home page.   The FC held its first in- person meeting, at the Community Center, in over a year and a half on December 12, 2021.  This long delay was Covid 19 related.  Not many island residents or ferry users were aware of the December 12 meeting or its topic.  The new charter, presented at the meeting, proposes significant changes to the existing 2010 document primarily regarding the elections.  No changes to the proposed new charter are being allowed by this FC.  The vote for this charter will be all or nothing.

The current elections for ferry committee members with two or more candidates vying for the same position is conducted by mail-out ballot to the registered voters of the Guemes Island Precinct. This identification of eligible voters and their return ballot vote was important to validate the committee members, the committee, and its de facto relationship to the County.  This also diminished the argument in times of dissension that “the Ferry Committee does not represent me.”  The Burke Study also recommended that “Committee membership should include stakeholders that represent the interests of both Island and off-island residents.”  And that recommendation is codified in the current charter which states that a nominee is eligible from a very wide pool: “To qualify, Ferry Committee nominees must be current registered voters of the State of Washington."

The proposed charter will change voting eligibility, the nomination procedure, and the balloting process.   The voter eligibility  “. . . shall be 18 years old or older and meet at least one of the following criteria:  a registered voter of the Guemes Island Precinct, a Guemes Island resident, or a Guemes Island property owner.”  Age will be easy to prove by a voter’s driver’s license.  (Another question is who will be the pollsters checking the credentials?)  The “Guemes Island Resident” who is not a registered voter, is not defined. How long would this Resident need to live on Guemes to qualify as a Resident?  It will be easier to identify a property owner assuming that person brings a paid property tax receipt to the Guemes Island polling place.  

The nomination procedure is severely shortened and limited to showing up in person at a meeting to be held about 4 weeks before the balloting.   Item G, 1:  “Nominations for Ferry Committee candidates will be accepted only at the monthly meeting that precedes the annual meeting by at least four weeks.”  

The balloting procedure is changed under G 5 to: "Paper ballots may be obtained by eligible voters by signing in either at the annual meeting or at a polling station.  The polling station shall be located on Guemes Island and shall be open for voting during specified hours on specified days prior to the annual meeting.”  

The current nominating system is also more open.  In the existing charter, “Nominations for the Ferry Committee candidates will be requested from, but not limited to, the ferry user group at the annual meeting.”  

Expanding voter eligibility to property owners presents several issues.  The original and ongoing intent is that the FC shall represent the “residents" of Guemes Island. The full time, registered voter, on Guemes depends on the ferry for a livelihood and/or for emergency service paying on year-round basis. The property owner here for summer vacation and recreation pays much less than a year-round resident of the island and does not depend on the ferry service for a livelihood. Further, the vacationer’s ferry concern emphasizes convenience of access over ticket price. Recent surveys demonstrate about a 70 percent response coming from individuals not resident on the island whose main concern was ease of access during summer months and over spring and summer holidays.  

How is a resident or property owner to be identified, and by whom, at time of paper balloting on the island?  This becomes a very important issue if there is a tie vote for one of the positions.  This has happened in the past, but the recount was done by qualified, trained pollsters and was accurate as the voters could be verified per the  registered voter rolls.  By relying on voter registration, a long-term renter has as much right to vote as the property owner. Further, any short-term resident who chooses voter registration on Guemes can vote here.  Voter registration also ensures the principal of one person/one vote which is a fundamental of the US Constitution.

By restricting the voting to a polling place on Guemes Island, voter participation is limited to those who can get to the island during that as yet unspecified window of time. The mail-out ballot ensures access to those who might not be able to get to the island in time to pick up a ballot at the “island polling” location.  At the meeting on December 12 those in attendance learned that Bud Ullman and David Prewitt, whose terms are up, will not run again.  The proposed charter in H2 assumes that this new charter will be in effect and lays out a procedure to vote for new positions for the 2022 election. The wording should be careful to state that this is only for the 2022 election. It is not clear when the meeting will be that will allow nominations to replace the two open positions.

The current charter states “Charter amendments may be made by a four-fifths majority vote of the Ferry Committee and with the acceptance of two-thirds majority vote of those voting at the annual election.”  This will be a very important annual meeting.  It is not clear why this Ferry Committee is proposing major changes to the existing charter which is the more transparent system for voting procedures. What is clear, however, is that the island residents who live and vote on Guemes should take time to attend this upcoming annual meeting (date currently not set) and vote to maintain the existing charter which is the more transparent system for electing members of the Ferry Committee.   The Ferry Committee has the historically recognized task to represent island residents in the most critical factor affecting their island life: the Guemes Island Ferry.

- Steve Orsini

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